So many times, the messages we hear as students and postdocs about life as an academic are negative. Departmental dramas, declining public support for universities and basic research, long and erratic hours, the publish or perish rat race mentality, and a constant barrage of grant rejection piled upon paper rejection. These were the messages I received as a student, yet for some reason I still wanted the all-important faculty position. Was I just crazy? Was I a glutton for punishment?
I loved being a student, most of the time. But my perceptions of academia as a student didn’t seem to square with the messages I was receiving from above. I thought perhaps being a faculty member was just different and I would hate it. Yet I soldiered on. I also had a great postdoc experience, and the lame-duck portion of it was blissful. Managing to secure a tenure-track position lifted a huge weight off my shoulders that I was only vaguely aware was there. But as the transition from postdoc to professor approached, my excitement was balanced by an increasing sense of unease and fear. What have I done? What if I hate it? What if I can’t do it? What if I never sleep?
So here I am, months into the new position. I moved across country and made the transition from postdoc to faculty. I started teaching, started setting up my lab, started recruiting students, started navigating all the unknowns and politics of a new job.
Has it been easy? Definitely not- I worked harder these past few months than ever before. Have I always gotten enough sleep or exercise? Nope. Are there parts about my job that I don’t like? Absolutely. Will I use this column in the future to discuss some of the negatives or ask for advice about serious issues? Certainly.
But I love it. Let me repeat this, emphatically. I absolutely love being a professor.
I know that not everyone has the same experience as me and that many, many good researchers and teachers have a difficult time getting a tenure-track job in the first place. I’m also sure some people will read this and say, “Just wait a few years, then it becomes really crazy.” (People have already said this to me). But you know what? I’ve been hearing these types of negative messages for years now, and I keep waiting for it to get worse. And it hasn’t.
For every negative person I’ve interacted with, there have been so many more wonderful ones- fantastic colleagues and new friends; great, motivated students; nice, smart, and competent administrators.
I savor the feeling of accomplishment that comes when I succeed at something difficult, whether it’s finishing a paper or (most often) simply getting through the week with my outbox keeping pace with my inbox.
It was difficult to develop and teach a new class, but my students were great and the class was fulfilling. When a student grasped a complex concept or asked an insightful question, I felt amazing. I am so proud of my students, but I’m also proud of me for contributing to their discoveries.
I hate working with vendors and the busywork associated with setting up a lab, but I love thinking about all the shiny new equipment that will allow me to do fun research.
It’s daunting to start putting together new research projects- frame my questions and hypotheses clearly, figure out the ‘hook’ or the message, find new field sites, figure out permits and all the other big and small logistical issue that go along with research. I have moments when I don’t think I can do it, and times when I’m certain no one else will think it’s interesting. But the excitement and anticipation I feel when planning out a new research project—MY new research project— is empowering.
Over the past few months, I started off most weeks feeling like it would be impossible to accomplish my goals for the week in the small amount of free time on my calendar. But I asked for the advice of others and figured out what worked for me. I didn’t spend too much time making sure my lectures were perfect. I joined a writing group and attended it religiously. I made meeting new people on campus a priority. I went away for some weekends to visit friends and family. And most of all, I went easy on myself and didn’t (or perhaps more accurately…tried not to) beat myself up for not doing my job perfectly. And so now, after getting through every week more or less successfully, my busy schedule doesn’t overwhelm me that often. Or perhaps I’ve just been successful at setting more realistic goals. Regardless, I’m increasingly convinced that I can do it and I’m not going to fail.
Not everyone will get the coveted tenure track job (a topic for a different day), but for those of us who do, I think it’s important to hear success stories. There are so many negative news articles about how hard it is to be a woman in academia that it can be really overwhelming. So, amidst all of that, I wanted to share my experience thus far—one of success, and hope.